KATHMANDU, Dec 9: Barcelona will be looking to carry on its unbeaten run against Villarreal at the Estadio de la Cerámica, and extend the lead at the top of the table by seven points ahead of both second-placed Valencia, who has still a match to play later on Saturday, and Real Madrid, who beat Sevilla 5-0 at home on the same day.
Barcelona had recently drawn its La Liga match at home to Celta Vigo, but maintained the unbeaten run becoming one of two sides not to lose a single game in all competitions this season, along with Serie A outfit Inter Milan. Barcelona also reached the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League as the group winner with a 2-0 win at home to Sporting.
In the Celta match, Barcelona paid their price having failed to utilize the opportunity it got in front of the goal. Having had a total of 22 shots and seven on target, Barcelona drew 2-2 after leading the game 2-1 in the 62nd minute, but later conceded a 70th minute equalizer from Maximiliano Gomez.
Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic had an okay game. He provided 79 passes, out of which 71 were accurate and seven long balls from the Croatian. He also had six crosses in the match, with two key passes as well.
No players were to be blamed in the match, but the injury to the outstanding performer of the season Samuel Umtiti, which also led to the equalizer, was the epitome of the third draw in La Liga for the Catalan side.
Now, Barcelona will want to amend their problems in the league as it has faced two back-to-back draws against Valencia and Celta.
Barcelona will still be without Argentina defender Javier Mascherano, who is sidelined until mid-December after suffering a hamstring injury and is certain to leave the club at the January transfer market. Other absentees are Rafinha who is out with a meniscus injury, Arda Turan with an ankle injury, new signing Ousmane Dembele with a hamstring problem, but is back at the training, and the new injury concern of Umtiti, who will be absent for eight weeks and is expected to return by February.
So, Barcelona may start with Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen, who started against Valencia in La Liga, against Real Murcia in the Copa del Rey and against Sporting in the Champions League. First choice goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen may start the game again after he was replaced by Jasper Cillessen against Sporting.
At the midfield, Barcelona may again opt to play with Ivan Rakitic, Paulinho, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta who is fit to play as per the reports, but the Barca boss Valverde may also be interested to play Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes, who were superb in the midweek.
The front line may be very much the same in Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, but Paco Alcacer may get another chance as he has already scored two goals and provided an assist, despite playing very few games for Barcelona, with one of the goals coming against Sporting.
Villarreal has much worse injury problems as eight of its players are injured or will be absent. Andres Fernandez and Leonardo Suarez are out with cruciate ligament injuries, Carlos Bacca with a leg injury and is doubtful, Denis Cheryshev with a sprained ankle, Nicola Sansone with a calf injury, Ruben Semedo and Samu Castillejo with thigh injuries and Pablo Fornals, who fainted during Saturday morning’s training session and was rushed to the hospital.
So, the Yellow Submarine might start with Sergio Asenjo in goal, with Mario Gaspar, Daniele Bonera, Alvaro Gonzalez and Adrian Marin as the backline, who played in a 3-1 away defeat to Leganes.
Midfielders Manuel Trigueros Mario Gonzales, Daniel Raba along with Rodrigo Hernandez in the middle of the park may feature, while Roberto Soriano might replace the injured Bacca, along with the in-form Cedric Bakambu.
Barcelona and Villarreal have faced each other 19 times in the past with the Catalan side emerging victorious nine times while Villarreal has won on five occasions and five games have ended in draws.
In the last six meetings between these sides, Barcelona has defeated Villarreal four times while the remaining two matches ended in draws.
In the 2014-15 Copa del Rey semi-finals, Barcelona beat Villarreal 3-1 at both home and away.
In the La Liga 2015-16 season, Barcelona won the first match 3-0 at home while the corresponding encounter ended in a 2-2 draw.
In the La Liga 2016-17 season, Barca was held to a 1-1 draw in Villarreal while the Catalan side comfortably beat Villarreal 4-1 at the Camp Nou.
So, Barca has not beaten Villarreal at the Estadio de la Cerámica in two consecutive games so far.
Messi finally ended his six-match goal drought in its 2-2 draw against Celta. Messi has now scored 13 goals in La Liga this season in 14 matches.
Bakambu is the second highest-scorer of the league with nine goals and just four adrift of Messi. He might trouble the Barcelona defense in absence of Umtiti.